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Hostages of destroyed infrastructure | Borneo Online Newsletter

Justin Spike

SLOVIANSK, UKRAINE (AP) — The echo of artillery shells thundering in the distance mingles with the din of people gathered around Sloviansk’s public water pumps, piercing the eerie calm that suffocates the nearly deserted streets of the eastern Ukrainian city .

Members of Sloviansk’s dwindling population emerge only minutes at a time to refuel at pumps that have been the city’s only source of water for more than two months.

Fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces near the key regional city of Donetsk has damaged vital infrastructure that has cut residents off from water and gas for months.

The water is flowing for now, but fears are growing that next winter the town just 12 kilometers from Russian-occupied territory could face a humanitarian crisis once the pipes start to freeze.

“The water infrastructure has been destroyed by the constant battles,” said Lyubov Mahlii, a 76-year-old widow who collects 20 liters of water twice a day from a public tank near her apartment, dragging the bottles plastic on four floors. her own.

Residents carry water collected from a nearby well past the charred remains of a car from a May rocket attack in Sloviansk, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine. PHOTOS: AP
A resident pumps water from a well outside an apartment complex
ABOVE AND BELOW: Lyubov Mahlii packs a crate with water bottles she filled in a public tank; and a woman looks at the damaged room adjoining her apartment following a rocket attack in May

“When there’s bombing and sirens, we keep wearing it,” she said. “It’s a big risk for us, but what can we do?

Only a fifth of the city’s 100,000 inhabitants remained before the invasion. As heavy fighting rages just a few miles away as Russian forces continue their push into Donetsk – a part of the industrial Donbass region where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops since 2014 – residents are defying shelling to stand make do with the only remaining source of water.

And local officials believe things will only get worse once the cold weather sets in.

Locals fill their bottles with hand pumps or from plastic reservoirs at one of five public wells before taking them home in bicycle baskets, wheeled carts and even children’s strollers.

Speaking from her tidy kitchen after one such trip, Mahlii said she boiled water for at least 15 minutes to ensure it was safe to drink. The rest is used for bathing, washing clothes and dishes, watering plants, and taking care of a stray dog ​​named Chapa.

After her husband, Nikolai, died of diabetes four years ago, Mahlii shares her Soviet government-provided apartment with two bright yellow canaries and an assortment of indoor plants.

The water she collected filled the plastic bins and buckets piled on every flat surface in her tiny bathroom, while empty plastic bottles lined the walls of her hallway. A meat and vegetable soup was cooking on an electric burner for lunch.

In late July, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a mandatory evacuation order to residents of the Donetsk region, saying staying would cost lives. But despite this and the terror that accompanies the cry of rockets falling near the city, with no money to move and nowhere to go, Mahlii plans to stay in Sloviansk – come what may.

“I don’t want to leave my apartment because someone else might occupy it,” she says. ” I do not want to leave. I will die here.

Another Sloviansk resident, Ninel Kyslovska, 75, collected water from a reservoir in a park to marinate cucumbers in the sun that afternoon. She said the shortage has upended every aspect of her life. “Without water, you won’t go anywhere. I have to carry 60, 80, 100 liters of water a day and it’s still not enough,” she said.

“Bread and water are sacred and they simply took it from people. Such acts must be punished.”

When refilling her bottles, Kyslovska said she sometimes avoided bathing to save herself a trip to the park and often washed her clothes in a nearby lake.

She blamed the local government for the lack of running water, complaining that the nearby town of Kramatorsk – just 10 kilometers to the south – still had water flowing from its taps.

But the head of Kramatorsk’s military administration, Oleksandr Goncharenko, said even relative luxury was threatened by winter, when the temperature drops to -20 degrees Celsius.

“These wells and pumps will freeze,” Goncharenko said, adding that places like Sloviansk and Kramatorsk – which also have no gas – had become “hostages of destroyed infrastructure”.

Goncharenko said Kramatorsk would drain municipal pipelines that run through unheated structures to prevent them from freezing and bursting, and that he was “99% certain” gas would not be restored until winter.

Power cuts and lack of heating could also increase the risk of fires as people try to heat and light their homes in other ways, he added.

Ukrainian officials are still trying to convince the remaining residents of the Donetsk region to evacuate as the frontline of the war threatens to shift west and an inhospitable winter looms.

Kramatorsk officials plan to build more public wells to supply the remaining population, but Goncharenko warned that water quality cannot be guaranteed. Such water would likely come from deep underground, he said, which would be too high in calcium and unsuitable.
to drink.

Mahlii hasn’t planned what she will do once the cold weather hits, but after 47 years in her Sloviansk apartment, she will have to deal with whatever comes from her home.

“We survive!” she says. “We survive by any means.”